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Phelps should focus on more than swimming in Beijing

BY IAN ROBINSON
Daily Sports Editor
Published March 5, 2008

Correction appended

In essence, the Olympics are about two ideas: peace and moral principles.

The Chinese government violates both. It represses human rights and supports the genocide-enabling government in Sudan.

Some have advocated a boycott of this summer's Beijing Games, but that won't happen.

That doesn't mean the world should stand idly by as the host government continues its violation of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Olympics are the perfect platform to pressure China to abide by international standards.

One group that can force the Chinese government to listen and raise awareness is the athletes.

And Michigan men's swimming and diving volunteer assistant coach Michael Phelps is one of the most powerful members of that group.

As he aims for eight gold medals this summer, Phelps could be the most dominant athlete in the world.

But his performance in the pool shouldn't define his Olympics. Whether or not he uses his prominent position to challenge the Chinese government should.

If a Chinese citizen tried speak out against his or her government, that person would get jailed. If they organized a rally, they would - well, we've all seen pictures of Tiananmen Square.

If Phelps does something, he'll be heard.

He would not only be remembered as a great athlete, but also, more importantly, as a great human being.

Phelps would be the ideal athlete to launch this movement. The media will cover his every move in China.

At the same time, it doesn't have to be Phelps. Whether he would be willing to take such a stand is unknown, since his media representative did not respond to a request for comment.

As much as people want to keep sports and society separate, they are inextricably linked.

Whether it be the Miracle on Ice or Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, separating the two is impossible.

A couple weeks ago, the British Olympic Association essentially placed a gag order on its athletes. Under pressure, it has since rescinded that rule. The United States Olympic Committee said that it wouldn't restrict its athletes beyond the IOC's ban on "(any) kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" in Olympic venues.

But what Phelps could advocate goes beyond national politics. It's about humanity - about giving a voice to people whose government doesn't give them one.

Steven Spielberg heard these calls for protest and responded. He was supposed to be a creative consultant for the Games' opening ceremonies but pulled out because China has given financial support to the Sudanese government.

Phelps won't pull out of the Games. He has too much on the line. But that shouldn't stop him from making a difference.

In Beijing, Phelps has the opportunity to establish his legacy, and it will have nothing to do with how many world records he sets.

How he protests is unimportant - what matters is that his message is clear. The most remembered athletes are the ones with conviction for a cause.

Jesse Owens's career wasn't defined by the four gold medals he won in 1936. He's remembered for defying Hitler's claims of Aryan supremacy at the Berlin Games.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos are most known for their Black Power protest on the podium in the 1968 Olympics, not the medals they won.

Phelps won't be defined by his medal count. We should care about whether he decides to defend people who don't have anyone to stand up for them.

Robinson can be reached at irobi@umich.edu.


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